Friday, April 22, 2016

The Worst and the Best – of the Pacific

Review by Bill Doughty

Tragedy and triumph. "Collision" and cooperation. War and Peace. 

Simon Winchester, author of "Atlantic," explores the yin and yang of the world's biggest ocean in "Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers" (2015, HarperCollins). "Pacific" is a great read for Earth Day.

Winchester's clear-eyed assessment ranges from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, garbage gyres, el Niño and the "Ring of Fire" to the joys of surfing in a book he calls "a description of the modern Pacific Ocean" that begins at the end of the Second World War.

Japan rose from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to become an innovative and inventive world power, creating the transistor and transforming business. The Japanese people rejected an authoritarian military-controlled government to "display a mettle quite unimaginable in its scope, heft, and range" in the Pacific theater:
"In those first months after the surrender, the country was gripped by a spasm of self-repair, of make-do and mending, of precipitous institutional about-faces and adaptations. Factories that had weeks before been making war materials switched their production lines to start making items needed not by generals and admirals, but by the bone-tired civilians and by the ragged menfolk returning from the battlefields. So bomb casings became charcoal burners, sitting neatly upright on their tail fins and helping households get through that first bitter winter. Large-caliber brass shell cases were modified as rice containers, while tea caddies were fashioned from their smaller shiny cousins. A searchlight mirror maker turned out flat glass panes to repair thousands of smashed Tokyo windows; and for country dwellers, a fighter plane engine piston maker turned his factory to building water pumps. A piston ring fabricator named Soichiro Honda took small engines used during the war as radio generators and strapped them onto the frames of Tokyo's bicycles – the resulting Bata-Bata motorcycles, the name being onomatopoeic, later evolved into a brand of bike still famed from 1950s Japan as the Dream. Its popularity and commercial success heralded the birth of today's automobile giant, the Honda Motor Company."
Supercyclone Tracy bears down on Darwin, Australia in 1974.
The end of empires casts a long shadow in this book: Imperial Japan and especially the British Empire – and how the monarchy's influence faded in Hong Kong and Australia.

Darwin, Australia becomes a focal point in a discussion about Pacific storms and the effects of global climate change. "During the war, more Japanese bombs rained down on Darwin than on Pearl Harbor," Winchester writes. But when Supercyclone Tracy turned from the sea toward Darwin on Dec. 25, 1974, it destroyed 80 percent of the city. "There has never been a more dreadful and destructive event in recorded Australian history."

Winchester mentions how the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii tracks storms in the Pacific, including Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which "devastated much of the Leyte Gulf region of the southwestern Philippines." 

Northern Lights seen in ICEX 2016. Photo by Aerographer's Mate 2nd Class Zachary Yanez
He quotes former U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear III, who, three months before Haiyan, said changes in the climate were causing increased typhoon activity. "Significant upheaval related to the warming planet is probably the thing most likely to happen ... and that will cripple the security environment," Locklear said. "Probably that will be more likely than the other scenarios we often talk about."

Winchester discusses coral bleaching, first seen on the Great Barrier Reef in late 1981, "under threat from a rise in sea temperature and acidity." He also describes the Pacific garbage patch, effects of plastic pollution on birds, efforts to stop overfishing, and rising sea levels in Kiribati.

Staff Sgt. Skinowski from the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing watches Mt. Pinatubo eruption, June 1991.
The explosion of Mt. Pinatubo, accompanied by a devastating typhoon in 1991, is described as a pivotal moment in the history of the region. Winchester reports how the USS Midway (CV 41) and USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) were diverted to the Philippines to help with evacuation and recovery (Operation Fiery Vigil) and of the vacuum created by the loss of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base.

The U.S. Navy figures prominently in "Pacific," from the USS Pueblo incident with North Korea in 1968 at the height of the war in Vietnam and during the Cold War to deployment of littoral combat ships today to Singapore. 

Winchester shows how the border for North Korea was created by a grease pencil on a National Geographic map early in the Cold War and what that meant for those affected by the "wretched annoyance" of the "pariah state."

Exploring with science and helping try to understand the origins of life: HOV Alvin.
The author takes us aboard the Navy-commissioned, civilian-operated Human-Occupied Vehicle HOV Alvin, a submersible that made a startling discovery 39 years ago.
"On a Thursday morning in mid-February 1977, this doughty miniature research submarine, so precisely engineered and so heavily armored as to allow three explorers to be brought down into the ocean deeps and then drive safely back to the surface, was lowered into the warm blue waters of the eastern Pacific for the 713th logged dive of her career. What she would find later that day, in the abyssal gloom almost two miles down, would laser-etch her name into oceanography's history books as having made perhaps the greatest maritime discovery of all scientific time. For she discovered down in the dark a whole new undersea universe, a previously unimagined dystopia of crushing pressures and scalding temperatures, of curious topography and even more curious life-forms, all gathered around a family of hitherto unknown phenomena that were immediately named for the gaseous torrents that they spewed ceaselessly out into the sea. Alvin, on that midwinter's day in 1977, first discovered the existence of what were to be called deep-ocean hydrothermal vents, gushings of gas and superheated water in places where all was believed to be cold and dark and dead."
The Navy, with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution aboard Alvin, had discovered new forms of life that existed through chemosynthesis, providing "information about the origins of life itself."

While he focuses primarily on the United States, Japan and Australia, Winchester presents an enlightening discussion about China and it's "new Great Wall" at sea, saying the founding of the People's Republic "would eventually turn the Pacific into a cauldron of contention," challenging ships in international waters with claims of sovereignty.
"And still the contagion spreads, and becomes ever broader. In recent years, China's dominance of the South China Sea has been followed by attempts to impose similar hegemonic control over the East China Sea. A long-standing claim made by the Chinese to the disputed Diaoyu Islands, an uninhabited cluster northeast of Taiwan that the Japanese have long called the Senkaku Islands, was suddenly backed up in 2013 when the Beijing government declared the airspace overhead a restricted area, and demanded that all aircraft, civilian and military, report and seek permission before entering it."
Past and future. Destruction and renewal. Fear and hope. Symbolism and stark reality. The yin and yang of "Pacific" rides on warships and surfboards.

Through the words of Jack London and Mark Twain and his own storytelling, Winchester introduces us to surfing icons George Freeth, Hobie Alter and Duke Kahanamoku – "a swimmer to beat all and a surfer to crown all, and if not the father of surfing ... its greatest of ambassadors, to America and beyond." His writing about the sport comes alive:
"The Pacific is a liquid place, and on most of its inhabited coastlines this liquid is warm and ultramarine and inviting. It is also by its very nature ceaselessly in motion. For centuries native peoples who lived on many of the islands of the ocean's tropical interior have made great use of all this motion in ways that provided them with the purest joy imaginable. they rode out on long wooden boards through the beachside surf and spume and waited, floating, for a wave to lumber in from the ocean, and then stood up on the boards, toes gripping the leading edge, and from the wave's summit crest, rode the boards down its steep green face, all the way back into shore."
The love for the sea becomes transcendent and expansive in "Pacific's" epilogue, "The Call of the Running Tide," as he describes the "duty of humanity" for Malama Honua, "to care for our island Earth." Malama Honua. That's the name of the three-year worldwide voyage of traditional waʻa, or sailing canoe, Hōkūleʻa, sailing with, as Winchester points out, "No compass. No extant. No radar. No radio. And certainly no GPS."
"They have left the Pacific behind. The crew have now to divine their way across seas – the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea – that are very different from their home waters. They will pass beneath skies and patterns of stars quite strange to them. Whether or not they succeed, those aboard all keenly believe that their simple attempt will serve as a powerful reminder of the sea's singular importance. That is what all on the boat and back in Hawaii believe lies at the heart of their venture. Malama Honua: that all should be urged to care for a body of water that nourishes every living thing on earth, that gave it life in the first place, and yet that is now wearily compelled to absorb all the excesses of the humans who live beside and around it."
Winchester concludes:
"It seems to me there is even more potent symbolism to the Hōkūleʻa's journey, symbolism that relates quite specifically to the ocean where the boat was born, where her crew members revived and then learned their skills, and from where she came to venture out to the rest of the planet. The Pacific occupies a unique position among the world's seas; the Hōkūleʻa's journey has served as a reminder of why."
At the end of this insightful book about the modern history of the Pacific, readers can be excused for wanting more stories from the author. But as one considers China, North Korea, global climate change – and the hopefulness of Malama Honua – history is still being written.

From today:  "After arriving in Newport News on Friday, April 22, Hōkūleʻa will (be) celebrating Earth Day with the Mariners’ Museum at the James River Fishing Pier on Saturday April 23rd. Canoe tours will be available to the public from 10 am to 2 pm. Enjoy fun and engaging educational activities for families, learn about traditional Polynesian voyaging and wayfinding, and meet the crew of Hōkūleʻa."

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